“He claims he saw Bheema and the twins, Nakula and Sahadeva,” said Duryodhana. “That’s enough evidence to declare the Pandavas as exposed. They must go into exile again.”

“No, dear nephew, Sucherman suspects he saw them,” said Sakuni. “That’s not enough. Bhishma, Drona, and Kripa, and even your father will not support your claim.”

“Sucherman is an upright king, an honourable man. Why would anyone challenge his claims?” said Dushasana.

“We’re all honourable men, but is our word good enough?” said Karna. “Uncle Sakuni is right.”

“The warrior who defeated Sucherman wielded a tree trunk. Uncle, who but Bheema has that strength?” said Duryodhana.

“There’s one other who matches Bheema’s strength; his son, Ghatotkacha by his rakshasi wife, Hidimbi,” said Sakuni. “He is a bald brute, a mighty hero, and could be the warrior Sucherman saw.”

“We’ll go to Sucherman’s aid and see for ourselves in the battlefield,” said Duryodhana.

“Yes, and capture or kill at least one Pandava,” said Dushasana. “Perhaps Sahadeva or Nakula. That’ll be enough evidence.”

“What troubles you, Karna?” said Duryodhana.

“Where’s Yudhishthira and what about Arjuna?” said the Angaraj.

“You’re all my advisors. Advise me instead of asking me questions,” said Duryodhana, and he exhaled loud. They were well into the thirteenth and final year, but no closer to annihilating or exposing the Pandavas.

“Hear my plan to draw out the Pandavas,” said Karna. He stood up and walked up and down as he spoke. “Sucherman has distracted and drawn Virata and the better part of his army to the eastern fortress. Who defends the capital, Uncle Sakuni?”

“My informants tell me the boy, Uttara Kumara, holds Virata Nagari,” said Sakuni.

“Good, and he can’t have many regiments defending the place,” said Karna. He continued to pace back and forth. “We cross the border from the south and invest the capital. At the very least, we seize Virata’s treasury and kill the crown prince or take him hostage.”

“But how does that flush out the Pandavas?” said Dushasana.

“I’m getting to that. If the heroes whom Sucherman saw are the Pandavas, then Yudhishthira and Arjuna must also be in Matsya. Perhaps they are in the capital to help the young prince. We march on the Matsya capital and Arjuna, if he’s in the kingdom, will show his hand. Thus exposed, the Pandavas must go back into exile.”

“What if Arjuna refuses to show himself? How can we be sure that he will?” said Duryodhana.

“We’ll entice him with the right bait,” said Karna. “He thinks of himself as the champion of champions. Superior to me in martial skills; superior to Grandsire Bhishma; and even better than his gurus, Drona and Kripa. If Arjuna sees the Kuru elders take the field, his ego will prod him to step forward.”

“Bhishma and the preceptors will never agree with your plan,” said Duryodhana.

“They don’t have to,” said Sakuni. “Karna, I like your scheme. But we need to make one crucial change. Krishna is not in Dvaraka. None of my informants have located him. If he’s in Virata Nagari…” He stroked his beard in place of the unspoken inference.

“Uncle is right,” said Dushasana. “If the cowherd is in Matsya, we can’t fight and prevail over him. He’ll annihilate everyone, including Bhishma and the preceptors.”

“That’s the reason I suggest one crucial change to Karna’s plan. Gather around, lest the walls have ears,” said Sakuni.

***

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